The seven spoonbills which were at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on several dates in June 2016 was the largest number ever on the Dee estuary, and they were a fantastic sight feeding in the lagoons and perching on trees around the reserve. There was some indication of nest building activity with birds picking up sticks and leaves on the scrapes with some taking them into the trees, but as this involved immature birds this wasn't a serious breeding attempt - but may be in the future?
Dee Estuary record was six,
in 1998 at Inner Marsh Farm (although this included a ship
Spoonbill so may be that count should really be five), and
in 2009 at Parkgate.
The first ever bird recorded here was on Burton Marsh about 1859, inevitably it was shot! There were just two records in the first half of the 20th century but from 1968 sightings became more frequent with birds seen in nine out of the 27 years prior to 1996. But 1996 was a remarkable year as there was a serious attempt to breed at nearby Frodsham Marsh with display, copulation and nest building with at least six birds present. To put this into perspective there had been no recorded breeding in the United Kingdom since the Seventeenth Century! Several of the Frodsham birds commuted between there and the Dee estuary including at Inner Marsh Farm and Parkgate, with some display and stick carrying noted at the former site.
Since 1996 they have been annual, but surprisingly, given the increase in counts elsewhere (see below), numbers have recently tailed off both in terms of max counts and also frequency of visits. But we are on the extreme western edge of their range so may be that is to be expected. Hopefully the recent influx heralds an era of increasing records.
The three highest counts (two of six and one of seven) all occurred in May and June. As this is right smack in the middle of their breeding season it is no surprise that most birds arriving then are immatures and it is likely that the odd adults that also turn up are young ones who have failed to breed for one reason or another - they don't start breeding until they are at least three years old. Immature birds also predominate during the rest of the year as it is these that tend to stay nearest to the breeding grounds (mostly in the Netherlands) through the winter rather than migrate much further south as the adults do.
Spoonbills did eventually breed, not too far away on the Ribble Estuary, with one pair successfully raising two young in 1999 - this was the first successful UK breeding in 330 years! Various attempts at nest building followed in several parts of the country but the next successful breeding was in Dumfries & Galloway in 2008. What followed was a step change in the colonisation of this species in the UK with the establishment of a colony at Holkham, in Norfolk, starting with six pairs producing 10 young in 2010, this had increased to 10 pairs and 18 young by 2013. I don't have any figures yet for the past three years but I understand the colony continues to thrive.
exciting development over the past 10 years is the establishment of a
substantial over-wintering flock in Poole Harbour, Dorset. The graph
shows the sharp rise in the winter (Dec to Feb) max from 2006/07, there
was a dip during the cold winter of 2010/11 but it then reached a max
of 40 over the last
two winters. But that isn't the whole story as counts in Poole Harbour
actually peak during the post-breeding passage in October and there was
a record count for the UK of 60 there in October 2015. Colour-ringing
shows that the vast majority of the Spoonbills which visit Poole
Harbour are from the Dutch colonies, so far there is no evidence that
any birds from Holkham over-winter here - despite some claims to the
The Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) ranges from western Europe right across to south-east Asia comprising several sub-species/races/populations, but for the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the western European population, the majority of which breed in the Netherlands and Spain and winter as far south as West Africa - this population is also known as the East Atlantic Flyway Population. It is, of course, these birds which occur here in the UK.
After a long historical decline, reaching a low point in the 1950s and 1960s, there has been a strong increase in numbers with Dutch breeding numbers increasing from 148 pairs in 1968 to 2,534 pairs in 2012, and those in Spain increasing from 100 pairs in 1970 to 1500 pairs in 2007. In the past 30 years they have spread to breed in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Portugal and the United Kingdom. This recovery has come about due to the protection of all the major breeding sites and sympathetic management of wetland habitats.
The population is currently thought to be at least 16,000 birds, of which about 80% winter in Mauritania and Senegal in west Africa, the rest staying in Europe, mainly France and Spain. Migration is a fascinating subject and there is still much we don't understand. In order to enhance our understanding the Spoonbill migration has been extensively studied with several thousand birds being colour-ringed since 1992. The conclusion of this study surprised everyone: Spoonbills that habitually winter in Africa (i.e. the majority) are worse off than Spoonbills that decide to go less far with both their survival and their reproductive success being lower. The species does seem to be in flux with increasing numbers wintering in Europe (including Poole Harbour - see above), but this change is taking place at a far slower rate than would be expected. I quote from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research website:
"This is caused by a combination of the fixed wintering habits of adult spoonbills and the 'traditional selection' of wintering grounds by young spoonbills that may follow adult spoonbills during migration and thus in many cases end up in West Africa as well."You can find out more about this fascinating research by reading the papers and website articles listed below (references 8 to 11).
1. Colin Schofield, Attempted Breeding of Spoonbill in Cheshire - 1996, Cheshire and Wirral Bird Report 1996, CAWOS.
2. T. Hedley Bell, The Birds of Cheshire, Sherratt, 1962.
3. Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports 1968 to 2014, CAWOS.
4. Holling et al., Rare breeding birds in the UK in 2008, British Birds September 2010, also Rare breeding birds in the UK Reports 2009 to 2013 published in British Birds and on-line, see http://www.rbbp.org.uk/.5. Spoonbill records as reported to BirdGuides.
7. Stefanie Deinet et al., Wildlife comeback in Europe: The recovery of selected mammal and bird species, https://www.rewildingeurope.com/, 2013.
8. Lok, T. (2013) Spoonbills as a model system: a demographic cost-benefit analysis of differential migration. PhD Thesis, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands.
9. van Roomen M et al., Status of coastal waterbird populations in the East Atlantic Flyway 2014, Programme Rich Wadden Sea, Sovon, Wetlands International, BirdLife International & Common Wadden Sea Secretariat, 2015.10. Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Conservative spoonbills are worse off, see:
11. Tamar Lok et al., The paradox of spoonbill migration: most birds travel to where survival rates are lowest, Animal Behaviour 82 (2011) 837 - 844.Richard Smith.
Some historical records this month. We have only just received feedback for two Black-tailed Godwits ringed on the south coast of the UK and seen here in July 2015. The Spoonbill records go a lot further back but I thought, given the Spoonbill article above, they would be of interest as it demonstrates just how much the immature birds move around. These two Spoonbills were both ringed as chicks on the Frisian Islands, showing just how important the nature reserves are on these largely unspoilt islands. Being large birds with long legs reading their colour rings is nice and easy, they can be read with a telescope up to 300 metres away - one of the reasons why this species was chosen for the migration study mentioned above.
Ringed on Farlington Marshes in Langstone Harbour, Portsmouth, on
October 15th 2013.
Recorded at Gilroy Nature Park, West Kirby, on July 16th and 17th 2015.
Spent the first half of the 2013/14 winter in the Langstone and Chichester harbours area. Feb 2014 saw it in Pagham Harbour in West Sussex. 2014/15 saw a similar pattern but it moved to the Blackwater Estuary, Essex, in March, with the next record at West Kirby in July 2015. Records since then were in West Sussex in Jan 2016 and on the Blackwater Estuary in Mar and Apr 2016.
Smith and Matt Thomas.
The Spoonbill in the photograph was recorded by Steve Seal, John Kirkland and Keith Scovell. As there was so much interest with the attempted breeding in Cheshire in 1996 a large number of people saw the second Spoonbill.
Some birders call June a 'dead' month. I've never subscribed to that view and this year it has been far from dead with some great birds.
The month started with a large flock of
migrating Sanderlings with 700 at Gronant, you can well imagine their
next stop will have been Greenland - these will have flown up from
Africa, and at that late date may be as far as from South Africa. The
3rd saw the arrival of seven Spoonbills as described in the article
above - altogether there were four reports of seven birds through the
month and by the last week six seemed to have taken up residence in the
trees where the Little Egrets are nesting. Also on the 3rd there was a
count of 74 Avocet chicks - this is twice the previous record of 36 in
2012. Most years the Avocets have had a bit of a torrid time with
predation so lets hope this marks a change in fortune, but it's easy to
forget that they only started breeding here in 2006.
Gronant was in the news again with the arrival of a Broad-billed Sandpiper on the 11th, it was recorded on a further four dates through the month. The next day a Stone Curlew was spotted in the sand dunes, but this wasn't the first visit to Gronant for this vagrant as there was one here in June 2002.
It is sad that Wood Warblers have become so rare in our area so it was good to have one singing away in Heswall Dales through the first two weeks of the month. Usually when a bird is singing in June you would expect them to be breeding but unfortunately it seems this was a lone male desperately trying to attract a mate.
Next up was a White-winged Black Tern, an adult in breeding plumage, which did a tour of the head of the estuary on the 17th visiting Connah's Quay, Shotton Nature Reserve and Burton Mere Wetlands. The last one was a juvenile at Inner Marsh Farm in October 2010. A Spotted Crake was heard calling at Shotton Nature Reserve on the 20th, there's always the possibility they may have bred there. The last of what was a very good June for rarities was a Glossy Ibis at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 25th.
The Little Terns continue to do well at
Gronant and I understand there is yet another record high number of
breeding pairs and, with the low level of predation so far, things are
looking good for a bumper year for fledglings. The Common Terns at
Shotton are also doing well with an estimated 350 pairs, the same as
4th July, 11.43hrs (BST), 9.3m.
5th July, 12.32hrs (BST), 9.4m.
6th July, 13.18hrs (BST), 9.3m.
Organised by the Wirral
Ranger Service , Flintshire
Countryside Service and the
RSPB (Dee Estuary):
All these events and walks have bird interest, even those not advertised specifically for birdwatching. No need to book for these events unless specified - please check below.
Please note that the entrance for the above Hilbre talk is free but
any donations for the Friends of Hilbre will be gratefully received.